Museums of Us

I visited my basement storage room not long ago. It is crammed with boxes, furniture, half-finished crappy crafting projects, pictures, and piles of long forgotten whatnots. It’s a mess that might scare the heartiest of dumpster divers.

I lifted the lid off a certain cardboard box to find A Brief History of High School. Inside were triangular and square folded notes, all so very high-schooley with loopy cursive and secret abbreviations. “Long live Frank ‘n Furter,” read one. (A few of us were obsessed with Rocky Horror Picture Show.) There were my pom poms and cheerleading outfit. I picked up the skirt that sadly now only fits on my big toe. There was my overstuffed senior year scrapbook with funny messages from friends signed, “Friends 4ever” and “Stay cool.” As I flipped through it, a sappy entry from my then-boyfriend caught my eye. It was about how we’d be married one day. I chuckled. Remember how convinced we all were that our first loves would be our only loves? There was a worn copy of The Iliad that reminded me of Mr. Mendenhall, the teacher who taught me to love mythology and literature, taught me how to write, and whose gentle, constant encouragement has kept me putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Memories and people rose from the box like ghosts, one after another. I smiled and wanted to hug their apparitions.

We all have these spaces: tucked-away rooms where stuffed animals languish, where letters and book pages yellow, where the clothes that used to fit mock us, where dusty photo albums await page turning, and where outdated furniture bides its time until the inevitable trip to the dump or college dorm room. People call them junk rooms, but they aren’t. They are little museums of us, and much of that stuff is important artifact. (Well, maybe not that hideous leopard print bean bag over there in the corner.) Continue reading

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Welcome, Welcome Marrakech

We step out of the taxi that has driven us into the Jemaa El Fna, the grand plaza of  Marrakech, inside the great walls of the medina (old town). It is said to be the largest square in Africa. This plaza used to be  the site of public executions. Now it is the thumping heartbeat of Marrakech – a marketplace, a circus, a marvel.

The fiery sun beats down upon the surrounding red sandstone buildings (hence the moniker “Red City”) and pavement amplifying the heat. It’s 108 degrees. My sweat glands seem to be vying for some sort of world record in moisture production.  As the taxi speeds away dodging pedestrians, we are assaulted by the sights, sounds, and smells of Marrakech. It’s as if all of my senses have been jolted out of a coma.

There is a cacophony – pungis and drums, the clomp clomp of horses pulling caleches, the beep beep of mopeds, shouting in Arabic, and vendors yelling about their goods in various languages. And, since Morocco is a Muslim country, those sounds are drowned by the mesmerizing calls to prayer that echo over the city five times a day. The noise is both unsettling and exhilarating.

My nostrils fill with the smell of Marrakech which is, as far as I can discern, a combination of mint tea, argan oil, amber soap, bubbling tagines, the tanneries, raw meat, horse pies and, maybe, cinnamon or cardamom. And body odor. Probably mine. You’d think it would be an awful stench, but it’s not. It’s a wonderfully odd, exotic aroma that awakens your mind and sets your heart apace. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The Jemaa El Fna

Morning in the Jemaa El Fna

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Man Kind

Men. We women have all sorts of opinions about men. Our opinions are often driven by stereotypes. Stereotypes provide a shorthand that is sometimes confirmed by experience but, as we all know, stereotypes are lazy and  dangerous. Still, we think we know these general characteristics of men:

  • they can’t find anything, especially if it requires moving objects
  • they don’t pay attention to details
  • personal hygiene is elective, especially on weekends
  • they find bodily functions hilarious (ok, they’re right about that)
  • they can’t watch TV without their hands down their pants
  • they are not self aware
  • they think an empath is something from Star Trek
  • they don’t like to talk about feelings

I admit that’s a caricature of men, but you know what I mean. And this is not disparage men – I love ’em. But they have a certain closed-off way. Or so I thought.

When I published my post, Now You Know, about my divorce, I expected that there would be comments from women. I sort of expected (though not in the powerful way it was) to be engulfed in the loving arms of my sisterhood. I expected that women would relate to my experience. What I didn’t expect? The overwhelming response from men.

I was as wrong as a fart in an elevator. As the days passed after I published the post, I was flooded with messages from men. They were supportive, insightful, and tremendously kind. These men took time to share their own heartaches and triumphs. They told me how my words resonated with them. They wished me peace and happiness. They called me brave as often as my female friends.

One old friend from college said simply that I was awesome and he thought he should tell me so. Another offered me his time and phone number in case I wanted to talk it out or just cry. Another told me of his own divorce and how after the pain of it, he emerged happier as did his family. Another told me that I was a “kick ass woman” and an eloquent writer. These kinds of messages came for weeks.

I was gobsmacked and profoundly moved. All the posts and messages I received after I shared the news made my heart swell (and made me cry like a baby), but I was affected slightly more by the men who reached to me because it was such a surprise. Shame on me for not expecting any of it. Shame on me for underestimating the ability of men to feel just as deeply, to care just as much, to offer support in the same degree as my sisters.

Perhaps they were responsive because I didn’t begin my post with “We need to talk,” four words guaranteed to induce a male coma. But seriously, I believe it’s something deeper. Behind those hands-down-their-pants-while-watching-TV postures and the inability to notice a new outfit are tender souls. My words resonated with them because their hearts get broken too. They recognize need, they’re empathic, and they love their friends.

Most significantly, they wanted to tell their stories. They were eager to share. We women don’t corner the market on pain, loss, sensitivity, or even talking about it as much as we’d like to think.

It’s been a profound set of lessons for me. Assume the best of everyone. Don’t fall victim to preconceived notions. Don’t lump people into categories. Offer kindness. Listen closely – everyone wants to be heard.

So here’s to men. Thank you for proving me wrong and for lifting me up in my hour of need. Most of all, thank you for your kindness. And maybe keep your hands out of your pants when you watch TV – I’m pretty sure the remote isn’t in there.

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“You should get on eHarmony,” she said, whereupon I burst into flames. Laughter, I burst into laughter. But I may as well have burst into flames because dating might actually kill me.

The last time I had a date Ross Perot was running for president and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back was playing on the radio, when I still had no back. Cell phones and the Internet were embryos in the belly of technology.  A text was was an informational book. My profile was what I looked at in the side mirror. I didn’t have to lie down to zip up my pants. Tweezers were only used for my eyebrows. It was a simpler time.

“Where are you going to meet a man, if not on the Internet?” she asked. It’s a fair question, the answers to which are: not in bars (all respect to the transformative powers of beer goggles), not at work (awkward), not at the gym (what’s a gym?), not at the dog park (too much crotch sniffing), and not in the grocery store (in spite of what every romantic comedy wants you to believe, people don’t meet while fondling melons).

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Now You Know

You’d never know something was broken. You’d never know about the tears because they fell behind the bathroom door, in the car, in the woods in the rain, and high upon a mountain trail.  You’d never know about the sharp edges of anger, resentments, and crippling fear that were eventually smoothed by introspection, acceptance, and action. You’d never know this was years in the making. How would you know? I never said a word.

I am good at not telling people personal things, and I’m very good at compartmentalizing my life. Those tears I cried? Mopped up right quick before my children or anyone else saw me or before I got to work. Anger and resentment? Boxed up and stored neatly behind a wall of work, responsibilities, and friendships. I covered up my internal life by letting my external life continue to be the wonderful thing that it is. I covered it up with humor, my low-brow savior. I did things with my kids. I traveled. A lot. I dug into my work. I like to have fun and be positive, so I kept the negative out of the equation for years, even with those who know me well.  I guess I wanted to shield them from what I thought would be messy conversations and from a messy me.

There finally came a time that not telling the truth was too much to bear. Not only did I become weary of being a liar by omission, but also it’s simply exhausting. I felt trapped by my self-imposed charade and stooped by the weight on my shoulders. Continue reading

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Hot or Not

I am hot. I am so hot that when I walk into a restaurant people stop to marvel at my hotness. Their eyes take in the rivulets of sweat seductively inching their way down my décolletage. My cheeks are ruddy with a sensual glow. I glisten with with droplets of sexy on my brow. I take a cocktail napkin, proffered by a handsome waiter staring longingly at my dewy countenance, and delicately dab at the moisture collecting on the back of my neck. The spell of onlookers is broken by my louder-than-need-be query, “IS IT HOT IN HERE OR IS IT JUST ME?”  And then I realize that the stares aren’t because I’m hot, but because I’m HOT. I see their furrowed brows and perplexed expressions as they wonder how a person exerting exactly zero energy can produce such a copious amount of sweat. I am not hot after all. My brain readjusts to the news flash: flop sweat isn’t sexy.

A “hot flash” should mean a good-looking guy opening up his trench coat, but it really means a woman of a certain age being overcome by a heat so intense that it could only be produced by the surface of the sun. Of course this happens without warning, often in public. I’m trying really hard not to lament this bizarre and unfortunate fact of aging, but it’s hard to ignore raging cases of swamp butt. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is.)  It’s hard to ignore the night sweats that make you awaken to drenched sheets and pillows. (Not to be confused with the George Clooney dreams.) Continue reading

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A Shaman, a Prayer, and a Fire

I wrote the post below shortly after I returned from Peru in March, but didn’t publish it. I feared that readers had grown weary of stories about Peru. A few nights ago, I had a dream about this experience. I dreamt of the bearded shaman and his brightly-colored poncho. Images of the fire circle swirled in my mind. I saw the faces of students as they stood before the mesita; they mingled with the faces of my daughters. I awakened with the experience once again fresh in my mind and it felt significant, so I decided to share this post:

After a long day hiking the ruins and the Sun Temple in Ollantaytambo, we gathered in a local lodge down the lane from our own. The white walls were adorned with Peruvian art. We sat on the wooden floor. We had come for a despacho, which is an ancient religious ceremony in which offerings and prayers are made to Pachamama (Mother Earth). We had eaten dinner, night had fallen, and we were exhausted. Given the hour and condition of the students, I wasn’t sure how it would all play out. I worried that we wouldn’t be totally present for the ceremony.

The despacho is performed by a shaman. Our shaman was named Vidal (a name which made me immediately think ‘Sassoon!’) and he was dressed in a vibrant red poncho over faded jeans, and wore a multi-colored woven hat with beads and  tassels. He had a mostly-white beard, a resonant voice, and a chiseled face of importance – but one with a smirk. It was hard not to be amused by his get up and demeanor. Please pardon how disrespectful that sounds, but he was a character in the best sense of the word. He sat on a couch before us with another man who appeared to be his assistant.

Vidal, the shaman

Vidal, the shaman

Before the despacho ceremony began, Vidal talked (and talked) to us. Maria, my colleague on this adventure, is well-trained in performing despachos herself and translated his words for the students. He imparted messages about returning to our spiritual selves, about our connection with the earth and our relationship with each other. “Todos son Indios” – we are all Indians, he said. He made an interesting play on these Spanish words while he was speaking on this topic: he repeated that we are all “In-Dios, en-Dios” meaning ‘in God’. This is familiar language to me as a Quaker; there is the Light of God in all of us. He spoke at length about the condor, a representation of the divine and a sacred symbol for Andeans.


He meandered  through topics, sounding off on the many ways westerners have lost their way by losing touch with the Earth and nature. We concentrate on the wrong things, on material possessions and wealth. We’re destroying the Earth. We don’t listen to our inner selves, each other, and nature. He wasn’t wrong. But he repeatedly called us donkeys in English which first elicited chuckles, then silence. I could see that we were all thinking, “That dude is calling us asses!”   The wandering speech and not-so-subtle insults made us fidget and wonder where it was all going. Some of the students seemed to be tuning him out, as was I, to be perfectly honest.

After about 45 minutes the ceremony began. He became more solemn and adopted a serious tone. Students perked up. He explained the despacho.  We were there to pray and make offerings to Mother Earth. We were there to ask for something and to give something. This was important what we were about to do, and we felt it.

A bag of coca leaves was passed. [It should be noted that the coca leaf is part of nearly everything in Peru. It is used to make tea to cure all kinds maladies including altitude sickness, headaches and bellyaches, to aid in digestion. The locals chew it like gum, and it is also part of sacred ceremony.] Each of us was instructed to find  four perfect leaves –  ones that were whole, dark green, with strong spines.  Then a bag was passed with tiny waxed paper packets, each  containing symbolic ingredients. We each selected a packet.

The Inca believed in the concept of Ayni – that you don’t ask for something without giving in return. Reciprocity. The coca leaves would represent our prayers and wishes and the packets would be our gifts to Pachamama.We would deposit them in the prayer bundle.

I was surprised (as was Maria as a practitioner) that he asked us to say our prayers aloud. Usually prayers are made silently. Before I knew prayers were to be made aloud, a distinct prayer had come to me. It was for my younger daughter who had been struggling with various things. I was terribly worried about her; her face was clearly in my mind as was my prayer for her. When he declared that the prayers would be aloud, I abandoned my prayer feeling that it wasn’t right to expose her in front of students. But I kept that prayer in my heart nonetheless, and my chest began to pound with emotion. This feeling caught me off guard, I guess because I’d not taken the whole thing seriously until this moment. This was clearly true for the students as well. Their expressions changed. The fidgeting stopped.

As we selected our leaves and packets Vidal continued to speak. His voice was mesmerizing. Then he invited us to him. One by one the students approached the shaman at his mesita, a small table with a cloth in which to collect our prayers, two cups and other symbolic items. Each was asked to say his or her prayer. Vidal received the leaves, placed them upon the cloth, heard the prayer and gave a response, sometimes even a humorous one.

I won’t recount what the students asked for, as many prayers were quite personal. Several shed tears as they offered their prayers, overcome with emotion. When it was my turn to deposit the coca leaves, I asked for the happiness of my daughters. “Espero por la felicidad de mis hijas,”  I said.  This general prayer I said aloud, but in my heart I said, “I pray that you find your way” to my youngest daughter.  I didn’t realize until I stood before him how profound an experience it would be. He whispered words of encouragement, said that my prayer was kind, and assured me that my wishes would be granted. I returned to my spot in the circle, trembling and shaken by the moment. My eyes had welled with tears.

Next, we individually brought our small packets to the shaman. He opened each to reveal things like flower petals, spices, wafers, leaves – items that symbolize love, happiness, health, prosperity, peace, and others. These were the offerings for Pachamama, her gifts to grant our wishes.


Prayer bundle

Once our prayers and offerings were complete, Vidal gathered up the sides of the cloth and tied them together to make the prayer bundle and closed the sacred space with a prayer. We  went outside where a fire had been built over a chakana, an Inca cross-like symbol. We encircled the fire and the shaman recited his prayers and placed the prayer bundle on the fire. As it took to flame, the girls (and we women) were given chicha, a corn beverage,  to pour on each of the four points of the chakana and the men and boys poured wine on points that represent the three worlds: Hana Pacha, the superior world of the gods, the sun and the moon;  Kay Pacha, the world of existence; and Ucu Pacha, the underworld inhabited by the spirits of the dead. We quietly poured and passed the bottles between us as the blaze and smoke rose toward the sky.

At the completion of the ceremony, the shaman bid us farewell. It had grown late in the night and we were spent, but we stayed at the fire to have a Meeting for Worship, in our own tradition of reflection. We worshiped in silence as the fire crackled and lit our faces. We let the experiences of the day sink in. We sat deep in thought. I can only imagine what the students were thinking about, but I was thinking about how lucky and grateful I was to be in Peru.  As with Quaker  tradition, we turned to neighbors to shake hands to signal the end of Meeting. We shuffled  quietly back to our own lodge along the darkened dirt path, illuminated by our headlamps. Students who had shed tears were hugged and comforted by others. The genuine tenderness they shared with one another filled me with a deep sense of peace and happiness.

We fell hard into our beds that night, our bodies heavy with fatigue, our heads heavy with sharing such an intense experience, and our clothes smelling of smoke. I drifted into peaceful slumber wondering if our prayers would be answered by Pachamama.


It’s been several months now since the despacho. As the experiences in Peru became memories and the routines of life  returned, the significance of that night faded. But all the while, my daughter, for whom I made the secret prayer, has undergone remarkable changes and her circumstances have improved dramatically. Both of my daughters are wonderfully happy. I hadn’t attributed their happiness specifically to this experience until my dream revived my prayer and I saw their faces floating above the mesita. It could be coincidence, of course. Dreams are often random conflations of imagery and feelings. But I began to wonder: was it the power of the despacho? Did Pachamama answer my prayers? Perhaps it is so. Gracias, Pachamama.

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